Secrets of Lough Swilly and Beyond

Thu 21 Jul 2022 13:03

The Secrets of Lough Swilly and Beyond

An afternoon rising tide meant we left the anchorage in Ballymastocker at half past two and we motored gently up the Lough toward Rathmullan where we hoped to be able to moor alongside a pontoon for a few days, or maybe anchor off the sandy beach out of the way of the moorings.

Early into the short voyage I noticed parent guillemots, each with one young in training, from my vantage point at Zoonie’s wheel, then suddenly a lot of squeaking from a parent and squeaks from a young guillemot, I had inadvertently separated them, ooops. They were quickly reunited.

There were stone forts facing opposite eachother on both shores as we went up river, some in ruins other converted for modern use and the land was turned over to farming with small copses of trees in between the fields.

The red car ferry was on its way over to Rathmullan from Buncrana and that was our first sign we were getting near. It was a fine day and the next sign was lots of people on a sandy strand (beach) having a fine time.

There appeared to be a number of vessels moored to the pontoon and we were not sure if there would be enough water for Zoonie on the inside with a little strand just a few metres away toward the battery.

“Call up the number in the book, Rob,” I suggested and a few moments later Angela, informal pontoon master, was reassuring us there was plenty of depth and she would send the on-duty boatman down to take our lines.

So, we circled for a short while as he moved a rib forward giving us enough room to squeeze Zoonie in behind a nice Colvic design yacht belonging to Adrian, a retired dentist who had good reason to love this enchanting place, full with history but now enjoyed for its natural beauty.

At high water Zoonie had seven metres under her keel and at least three at low water. The small strand was just a few metres away, where vessels careened on a rising tide and cleaned off their hulls when the tide was out, and in between were two rusty old anchors, too big to move and marked with round buoys, best avoided!

After a few minutes of chatting with Adrian and he offered us a trip to Derry in his four by four two days later as he was taking a trailer load of rubbish to the tip near his Derry home for the Lady of Avenel, the brig we had seen emerging from a bay behind the lighthouse on our way in. A passionate sailor, Adrian was re-kindling his past connection with the world of traditional sail as well as enjoying sailing his own ketch, and this extended to all the needs of a commercially run brig.

We were the third boat in on the pontoon and we realised getting out could be tricky unless we were on the outer end of the pontoon. So, we decided that as the rib and yacht behind us left we would move Zoonie backwards towards the end.

The pontoon was attached to the pier, itself an extension of the old one dating back hundreds of years. On the other side was the concrete ramp for the car ferry and beyond that the beautiful sandy strands where people relaxed and had fun.

Each morning a queue of the visiting children would wait as a lady took their names and chatted in a motherly way to them. Then they would be allocated to their teams for a day of watersports; laser dinghy sailing, paddle boards, kayaks, and swimming lessons. Their parents would be watching and lazing from the strand when the weather was nice, which on this changeable summer was not every day.

Rob and I stretched our legs along the first strand, admiring the fine Rathmullan House on the way, over a band of rocks and onto another, smaller curving strand that came to a stream and a track over the dunes to a small road. We followed this quiet lane past razored hedges and numerous houses and came to a fairy path back through woods above the strand. In a break in the trees Rob spied a yacht on its side and we hoped it was awaiting a hull clean. When we mentioned it to the duty pontoon man he confirmed it was on its other side yesterday having that half of the hull scrubbed.

In the afternoon we met Deidra who took the five of us around part of the small town explaining the history with facts, anecdotes and humorous tales of half hangings and accidental murder, not so funny for the victims of course.

In 1811 Captain Pakenham, who was the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law, was in command of the Saldanha, a two-year-old 36-gun frigate returning from laying chase to a French Privateer when they were hit by a storm and wrecked on the rocks just south of Ballymastocker Bay, where we had spent our first couple of nights on a mooring buoy. The ship was a total loss and all 253 sailors aboard perished, their bodies washed up on numerous strands. The captain is buried in the graveyard at the ruined Abbey in the town. Only the parrot survived and he was shot by a local who identified him from the collar he was wearing. The rocks where the ship broke up are now called Saldanha Head.

Lough Swilly has been a strategic location for various navies through history and before the Irish Republic was formed, while the country was under British rule the Union flag would be flown from the forts on the opposite shores. (there were forts on both sides because the cannon balls could not reach right across the wide lough).

However, after the republic was formed and separated the Irish Republic from British rule in 1922 then the flag of whichever navy was moored in the deep lough would flutter at the pole tops, be it German one day or English the next. The locals have English, Spanish (from the Armada days of the 1580’s) and French blood coursing through their veins and maybe a few drops of German too.

Her hubby, Fergus, took over on the hilly parts of the tour as Deidra had sciatica and when all was said we went to buy a couple of beers and sat on the grass bank opposite the White Harte with Adrian and his friends Peter and his daughter Connie and Winnie, the cockapoo they were looking after for a friend.

The pontoon man on duty told us about his farm just nearby where he had a herd of Charolais, some horses and a flock of sheep, all kept for breeding. I wondered if they came from the beautiful valley of farms, we had passed on our first walk.

The border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland here is very soft, we noticed while with Adrian the next day, in fact the customs offices are set back from the road, windows boarded up and painted a choice soft grey. The double-glazing emporium next door with its prominent sparkly windows and big flags fluttering is more like a border crossing. We didn’t have our passports with us and it didn’t matter.

Thoughtfully, Adrian dropped us right beside the Clipper yachts visiting at the end of their circumnavigation, their colourful flags and banners now pastel shaded and frayed after all the previous flyings in foreign ports. They are in early, after favourable southerly winds and will be here as centre pieces for the maritime festival the following week. Then they just have their final leg to do, around to London. What an amazing achievement for them and a great experience for the crews, many will be different people from when they started.

I downloaded an audio self-guided tour onto my phone and Rob copied it so we could follow it at our own speed. It took us right around the intact city walls, rare for any city to have its walls entire, and we noted one or two places we’d like to return to when we come back for a two-day visit after the weekend. One of our first stops was to look at the mural of The Derry Girls, a happy image of the ‘sixteen year olds’ who continue to give such pleasure to their viewing public.

We stood on the wide wall looking down on the Bogside, once marshland, where mostly Catholic Irish republicans live. It borders Fountain, a Protestant Ulster enclave that favours union with England. If you are old like me, you will remember the three-day Battle of Bogside from the 12th to 14th August 1969, the day I turned 17, when thousands from Bogside clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Hundreds were injured and, in the end, the British Army were deployed and the battle marked the start of the thirty-year conflict now known and ‘The Troubles’. Today the story is told in the most colourful form as murals painted on the end walls of the houses.

There is a pretty little church, dedicated to St Columba, called St Augustine’s and we were greeted inside warmly by two nice ladies before we had a brief look around. Back in the 500’s AD, long before city walls and religious division, St Columba, or Colmkille as he was called then, came here to what was then the island of Derry, and built a little chapel, as he and his faithful followers did all over Ireland and Scotland to spread the word of the early Christian faith. The church we visited was built over and around his chapel, and his spirit of love and kindness certainly seemed to be present in those two ladies.

We also skirted the cathedral, to which we would return later. But for now, we were hungry, so we went to the friendly River Inn and then into the Tower Museum for a little education before walking over the modern Peace Bridge to the old Ebrington Barracks area. The fences are now a thing of the past and the whole area has been developed into a place where people can relax as we did over a coffee and cake before Adrian pulled up nearby and we were sped back to the ferry.

A very nice family came alongside us on their elderly yacht. They had only just taken up sailing and were interested in our stories. I said their yacht would look after them as the older ones are much more substantially built than the modern production boats. We always mention that our only rule for setting off is a good weather window and the lady and I agreed that offshore sailing is less fraught than coastal sailing with all its hazards.

Later Adrian told us they are both members of the Garda and he did his day-skipper course with the husband. Not that their being police officers put us on our guard!

The four of us had the opportunity to move our two boats backwards towards the end of the pontoon. “Oooh, I’ve not come across this practice before” the lady remarked as Zoonie slid very gently backwards with the tide helping.

The Sunday of our stay in this gem of a place dawned sunny and cloudless so Rob and I went for a long walk up into the hills above the lough.

Another secret of the lough is the strange carving on the stone that looks like a horned antelope head over a primitive cross. Nobody understands it, even the experts and it is a perennial mystery. Any ideas?

We climbed easily up the winding lane, looked for and failed to find a standing stone and found a different lane to the one suggested. Our route took us across the head of the farming valley I mentioned and right down the other side back to where we had left the strand for the lane we used in our first walk.

Everyone here says “hello, how are you?” or words to that effect and two ladies were sunning themselves outside their house with its commanding views over the fields of dozing cattle. So, we stopped and chatted awhile.

Back at the boats Adrian was aboard so we took him for a drink in the garden of the White Harte. The town was full to brimming with people on this lovely weekend day, folk queued at the coffee and ice-cream vans and the public loos, cars overflowed from the car parks and hot sticky children washed themselves under the outdoor showers. So, the little-known garden of the pub was a peaceful oasis.

Adrian had brought his tide tables and asked for a little guidance on when to leave Rathmullan to sail with three friends around to Lough Foyle and Derry so he could visit the Maritime Festival of which the eleven clipper yachts were the centrepiece. So that was easy for me to do and Rob provided the time of High Water Dover for the appropriate day from the app on his phone. He thought to leave on the Tuesday and we planned to leave for Port Ellen on Islay, Scotland on the Wednesday after our return from two days in Derry, so this would be our last time with Adrian, a lovely man we were so lucky to meet.

After he left, because his brother-in-law was cooking supper, we wandered across the road to the Beachcomber for a meal. It was packed to overflowing but after a short wait we were shown to a table and had a tasty plateful, looking out over the beautiful lough with all its interesting comings and goings, its history and the immense pleasure it gives to modern families.

The Giant’s Causeway

The first ferry does not arrive in Rathmullan until 9.40am and we doubted whether it would tie in with the bus service as it is only a summer time ferry, so we could have been faced with a near two hour wait for the next bus and as we didn’t want to waste that time, I booked a taxi. The driver was working flat out as his two relief drivers had chosen not to return after Covid. I didn’t quite understand this widespread phenomenon. Ok if people find other jobs but to just not return to their old job that is waiting for them, how do they earn an income? Surely, they cannot claim benefit if they have a job. One of life’s mysteries to me.

We were dropped at the railway station to catch the train to Coleraine, its next stop after that was Belfast. We then caught a bus out to ‘The Nook’ so we could explore The Giant’s Causeway. As we couldn’t get there early, we knew the place would be crowded. Coaches parked up in rows awaiting their returning passengers, but then three walking routes separated us and the vast area around the causeway also meant there was never a press of people, except in the ladies.

We took the red route over the clifftop and down the steps and I was astounded by the natural beauty of the place. Having heard of the misconception spread about the modern visitor centre I was put off going in there. Many people are led to believe that one has to pay the £12 entry into the ultra-modern centre before they can go to the Causeway, that it is a kind of entrance fee. Well, it isn’t, access to the Causeway is free, so I wanted nature to talk to me and tell me the story, and Google of course.

The scenery to the right was very much like Cornwall’s clifftops but a glance over to the left, and the two hollowed amphitheatre bays linked at the Causeway, was astounding. The curving hillsides told me of the volcanic crater that had once been intact and immensely hot, red and white larva creating deafening noise and stench from the centre of the earth 60 million years ago but now covered in bright emerald greenness so typical of Ireland.

The many steps are made up of small shiny granite stone laid carefully level and not too steep so they are easy for the short-legged variety of humans, like me. I remembered the agonising descend from Dead Woman’s Pass, Machu Picchu where I had to take them sideways because they were designed for running porters and llamas and not the likes of me. My knees and hips took a while and a few pints to recover.

Walking the easy track around towards the causeway one can see the numerous rock avalanches and behind some of them are more, partially uncovered vertical basalt columns like the famous ones. So, it suggests they might have been the core or plug and some rare cooling of the molten rock caused them to form these regular and precise geometric shapes like piles of nuts stacked on top of eachother.

There was an almost spiritual aura about the causeway, the stage; people were moving carefully, making way for others and not holding their vantage points for long, taking their photos and retracing their steps back to the paths. Nowhere in the world can there be quite so many seats for visitors than here, and one has the choice, convex domed seats or concaved bucket seats all in these mostly six straight edged hexagonal chair sized shapes.

We retraced our steps, or rather wheels, back to Derry and found our way to Abbey B&B in the Bogside area, noticing the wall plaques to individual men who fell during the troubles. A flock of homing pigeons cooed just next door and dogs in the area were chatting to eachother, all we needed now was a cockerel sounding off and we’d be back on one of the South Pacific Islands, if only by shutting our eyes and imagining.

After a hearty breakfast and chat to an Australian couple touring by car we headed for the Siege Museum to learn about the 13 young apprentice boys who allegedly slammed the city gates closed when in 1689 King James II arrived in person with his army of French and Irish soldiers with the intention of sacking the city. A 105-day siege ensued during which a horrendous almost 10,000 deaths occurred and was only broken when James II’s blockade built to prevent food being taken in to the area, was destroyed by his son in law, King William of Orange’s ships that were laden with food to bring relief to the survivors.

Shortly before James had been deposed as king in the Glorious Revolution and his Protestant daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange took the British throne and thus prevented a civil war in England.

Just up the hill from the museum is St Columb’s Cathedral and just inside the porch is the mortar shell that was fired into the city during the Great Siege of Derry, it contained the terms of surrender offered to the besieged citizens who courageously ignored it.

Our bus back to Buncrana was not due for an hour and would leave from beside the Guildhall, so we took the advantage of having a look around and discovered the second inquiry into the Bloody Sunday Massacre which took place in 1972, at a cost of £195 million, finally exonerated the 13 victims from any provocation that could have led to the action of the British soldiers.

We asked the bus driver if he could drop us as near as possible to the ferry terminal and he was very agreeable. The young lady who came to pay next had cash. As the driver brought out his plastic cash tray to give her change, she accidentally knocked it and the entire contents fell to the floor of his cab. Poor man, he spent a good five minutes picking up the coins and was already behind schedule because of the delays caused by street closures in readiness for the Maritime Festival.

Coming along the coast we saw the ferry about five minutes away from docking. If we didn’t catch this one then we would have to wait for one and a half hours. We walked briskly with a sense of some urgency as we wanted to motor down river, back to Ballymastocker Bay for the night ready for what looked like a perfect day for crossing to the island of Islay in Scotland, 60 miles away.

Down the lane to the ferry terminal and out into the open we could see the ferry was still pressing against the concrete ramp. As we rounded the last corner and could see the boatmen, I waved, hoping they would hold things for us. Rob then said, “Well she can’t leave until twenty past because that’s her schedule time,” I relaxed, relieved, and noticed the grins on the guys faces as we arrived, funny old lady waving at them from a distance!

I will add photos about this blog separately, in the form of files. We are now in Scotland, at Port Ellen on the island of Islay, relaxing after a great sail across yesterday. Best wishes to you all.


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